Dean Martin - Wednesdays in September
Dean Martin, TCM Star of the Month for September, had two movie careers: one in a comedy partnership with Jerry Lewis and the other as an individual actor whose "don't-give-a-damn" demeanor often disguised a very real acting talent. Also a hugely successful singer and all-around entertainer, Martin eventually emerged as one of the most beloved figures in modern show business.
Martin's first major claim to fame was as the laid-back half of the Martin/Lewis duo, serving as straight man and crooner while Lewis dominated the act with his wild slapstick routines. Together they created an international sensation, raking in millions through movies, personal appearances, radio and television through the late 1940s and early '50s.
After the pair broke up, Lewis continued to be a "top ten" box-office star while Martin's future seemed uncertain. Soon enough, however, Martin established himself as a performer who could succeed on his own in practically every form of entertainment. And he did it all in that seemingly off-handed manner that obscured the underlying ambition and hard work.
Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti on June 17, 1917, in Steubenville, Ohio, to an Italian barber and his Italian-American wife. Until he started school at the age of five, little Dino spoke only in the dialect of his father's homeland in Abruzzo, Italy.
Martin dropped out of school in the 10th grade, reportedly because he felt he was smarter than his teachers. He had a variety of colorful jobs including bootlegger, speakeasy croupier, blackjack dealer and welterweight boxer billed as "Kid Crochet." He later kidded that out of a dozen fights, he "won all but 11."
Meanwhile, Martin was cultivating his natural talent as a vocalist. He began his singing career in a local spaghetti parlor and soon was performing with well-known Ohio bands. His smooth baritone voice landed him engagements with the Ernie McKay Orchestra of Columbus, where he was billed as "Dino Martini"; and with bandleader Sammy Watkins of Cleveland. It was Watkins who suggested the name "Dean Martin."
In the early 1940s, Martin relocated to New York City and began appearing in nightclubs and on radio. He won a following with his "bedroom voice" and a relaxed style influenced by Bing Crosby and Perry Como. His progress as a singer was temporarily interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944 during World War II, serving stateside for a year before being discharged with a 4-F status because of a double hernia. By this time, he had married his first wife, Betty McDonald, and had a growing family.
He first met Jerry Lewis in 1946, and the two performed together later that year at Atlantic City's 500 Club. After being poorly received at their first performance, they threw themselves into a second appearance with a vengeance that same night and completely won over a crowd that sensed something magical in the combination of talents.
After a series of appearances along the Eastern seaboard, Martin and Lewis had a successful run at New York's famed Copacabana. By now they had developed a riotous act in which Lewis heckled Martin as he tried to sing, and they cavorted about together cracking corny jokes and giving Lewis plenty of opportunities for hilarious physical comedy.
In 1949, the same year that Martin and Lewis began an NBC radio show that would last four years, they signed a contract with Paramount producer Hal B. Wallis in a deal that allowed them to produce one film a year under their own production banner. They also produced their nightclub, radio, TV and recording appearances, raking in millions from each venue.
The team's first film appearance was in supporting roles in My Friend Irma (1949). They clicked with film audiences and would appear together in 16 movies. The pair's costarring films are represented in TCM's Martin tribute with At War With the Army (1950), their first joint starring vehicle; Living It Up (1954), a reworking of the classic 1937 film comedy Nothing Sacred; and the pair's final film together, Hollywood Or Bust (1956).
Martin and Lewis were friends off-screen for a while, with Lewis serving as best man in 1949 when Martin married for the second time to Jeanne Biegger. (Martin's three marriages, including one to Catherine Hawn in 1973, all ended in divorce. He had four children by his first wife, three by his second and adopted the child of Hawn.)
But the relationship became strained in its later years. Martin reportedly grew dissatisfied with their films' repetitive format and increasingly negative critical reception - although all of the movies were financially successful. Arguments were frequent, and Martin reportedly made some harsh comments to Lewis, including the often-quoted remark, "You're nothing to me but a dollar sign."
The split came in 1956, exactly 10 years after the partnership began. Martin's first film as a solo star was the MGM farce Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957). It was a commercial failure. He then made a shrewd career decision that some have compared to Frank Sinatra's comeback in 1953's From Here to Eternity: taking a secondary role in a prestige picture with outstanding actors in the World War II drama The Young Lions (1958), with top-billed Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Martin received excellent notices for his role as Clift's show-biz Army buddy.
Martin's next two films solidified his career as a dramatic actor who could hold his own with strong costars. Some Came Running (1958), Vincente Minnelli's screen version of the James Jones novel, casts Martin as the hip pal of hero Sinatra, while the Howard Hawks Western Rio Bravo (1959) has him as a drunken deputy assisting a sheriff played by John Wayne in a conflict with a local rancher. Martin seemed at home in the Wild West milieu and would make several more Westerns during his career.
Other dramatic vehicles included Martin's surprise casting in and the political melodrama Ada (1961), opposite Susan Hayward and the film version of the Lillian Hellman play Toys in the Attic (1963). "Rat Pack" capers with Sinatra and other members of the gang included Ocean's 11 (1960), 4 for Texas (1963) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964).
Among Martin's other comedies were Who Was That Lady? (1960) with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh; Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) with Kim Novak; and Marriage on the Rocks (1965) with Sinatra and Deborah Kerr. Martin's only full-out movie musical was Minnelli's Bells Are Ringing (1960), in which he provided a charming foil for Judy Holliday. His numbers included "I Met a Girl" and, with Holliday, "Just in Time."
Martin had a successful run as Matt Helm, a James Bond-like secret agent, in four tongue-in-cheek spy thrillers: The Silencers (1966), Murderers' Row (1966), The Ambushers (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1968). His last starring role came in the crime drama Mr. Ricco (1975), and his final film was the Burt Reynolds adventure Cannonball Run II (1984), which also featured appearances by other Rat Packers including Sinatra.
Martin's success as a recording star was as enduring and impressive as his film career. Between 1950 and 1969, he had 40 best-selling singles including three top-ten songs: "That's Amore," "Memories Are Made of This" and "Everybody Loves Somebody." In the late '60s, 11 of his albums were certified "gold" with sales of more than 500,000 copies. Martin also conquered television, hosting the fabulously successful "Dean Martin Show" on NBC from 1965 to 1974 and continuing it under other titles until 1984.
A shadow fell over the final years of Martin's life when his son Dean Paul Martin Jr. ("Dino" in the 1960s rock group Dino, Desi and Billy) died in a plane crash in 1987. The older Martin, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993 and, on Christmas Day 1995, died of acute respiratory failure. His Los Angeles crypt bears the epitaph "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime," in reference to his hit song.
Never impressed by his own success, Martin once observed that "The whole world is drunk and we're just the cocktail of the moment. Someday soon, the world will wake up, down two aspirin with a glass of tomato juice and wonder what the hell all of the fuss was about."
by Roger Fristoe